A year ago, Rebecca Abbott, a food photographer and blogger in Mesa, Ariz., bought her first air fryer to develop recipes for a client’s blog. She started with the usual air-fryer specialties, frozen pizza rolls and tater tots, but it wasn’t long until she realized that her model could make pretty much anything she wanted. Four months later, she was stunned when her homemade cheesecake emerged from the device, baked to perfection in 20 minutes with no cracks or dips.
“Then, the floodgates opened,” Ms. Abbott said. She thought, what more could she cook in the air fryer?
Lamb chops, beef and pork tenderloin, a medium-well rib-eye steak, filet mignon, crab legs, lobster tails, pecan and pumpkin pie — she has made them all in the appliance she calls her “magic box.” She now owns seven, six of different brands, and runs a blog called Air Frying Foodie with her friend Jennifer West.
The two are also moderators for a Facebook group, Easy Air Fryer Recipes, where users share dozens of recipes and tips for the device. The group has nearly a million members, with about 10,000 new requests to join every day.
Cooks stuck at home during the two years of the pandemic have turned to the air fryer, in part, because it can replicate deep-frying, lending crunch to foods while using little or no oil. But they have also discovered that it can do more than just crisp. An air fryer can make breakfast, lunch and dinner. For some cooks, it has nearly replaced ovens or microwaves for heating frozen finger foods, refreshing leftovers or cooking meals and desserts. Social-media influencers, especially on TikTok, have made careers out of sharing new recipes and unexpected uses for the appliance.
Fans have tapped into the old habits of a fry cook, air-frying anything they get hold of and hoping it works. You name it, someone has probably stuck it into an air fryer — cooked penne for “pasta chips,” or whole, shelled eggs for a soft or boiled texture.
Farrah Jalanbo, a food influencer in Chino Hills, Calif., came up with an elote-inspired recipe for corn ribs that became an air-fryer favorite. Her version — corn on the cob that has been quartered, air-fried and dressed with Cotija cheese and cilantro — has drawn more than 14 million views on TikTok, where there are dozens of corn-rib adaptations, from sweet to spicy to barbecue-seasoned.
“Any air-fryer recipe does really well because people love seeing different ways of using that extra kitchen appliance they paid for,” Ms. Jalanbo said.
Fred van der Weij, an inventor in the Netherlands, was just looking for a way to crisp a French fry without deep-frying when he started developing the air fryer in 2005.
Before his invention, he said, alternative methods for making fries at home took too long, with disappointing results. A convection oven, for instance, dried them out.
It took Mr. van der Weij three years to develop a prototype, and his egg-shaped fryer, produced by Philips, was introduced in 2010 at the Internationale Funkausstellung, a major consumer electronics fair in Berlin. It combined close-range radiation and increased air flow to better heat the food’s surface. Philips now owns the patents for Mr. van der Weij’s air-frying technology.
“It was kind of a holy grail that many companies were looking for — to make better French fries,” he said. “To find a way to make the handling much easier and the results much better would be a very big potential, that was clear. But I did not expect it would be as big as it is right now.”
Major kitchen-appliance companies like Cosori, Ninja, Cuisinart and Instant Brands quickly introduced models of their own. They’ve added the air-fryer function to other appliances like convection and home ovens and pressure cookers.
When Ms. West, the co-creator of the Easy Air Fryer Recipes group on Facebook, set out to remodel her home kitchen in Shreveport, La., she decided that a stove with an air fryer was a must, even though she already owned five models of the air fryer.
“It’s a great device used by everyone,” she said of the air fryer. “All ages, all over the world.”
The first big sales boom for the air fryer came in 2017, and the pandemic provided another boost. Sales in the United States rose over the past year to slightly more than $1 billion — 20 percent more than in the year before, said Joe Derochowski, the vice president and home industry adviser at the NPD Group, a market research firm. In 2020, about 36 percent of American households had an air fryer, but Mr. Derochowski said that number would now be higher.
To understand the obsession many people have with the air fryer, it helps to look back to the mid-20th century, when food manufacturers learned that crispiness and crunch were among the textures consumers craved most, said Nadia Berenstein, a flavor historian. Those textures, which required a lot of heat and oil to achieve, had long been difficult to produce in a home kitchen for a weeknight meal.
Deep-frying was available to industrial food processors, Ms. Berenstein said. But now the air fryer is “on your counter, bringing home this kind of sensation that you had to rely on other people to produce.”
Americans buy more kitchen gadgets than people in the rest of the world, and that’s probably because advertisers promise it will change their lives, said Ruth Cowan, a retired history of science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a book on household technology titled “More Work for Mother.” The kitchens of U.S. consumers also tend to have more counter and storage space.
The air fryer is closely following the path of the 12-button blender, she said. As air fryers become a counter staple, manufacturers are adding features to fry, bake, dehydrate, pressure-cook or broil. And as consumers shop for an air fryer, they often choose one with many functions, Dr. Cowan said, even though they’ll probably use only a few.
The popularity of the air fryer also reminds her of the microwave’s ascendance in the 1970s. Some companies thought home cooks would use the microwave only to heat frozen meals, but ultimately they found other uses.
“Nobody recommended cooking a whole chicken in a microwave,” she said, “but people did.”
Megha Ramesh, a food-science student at the University of California, Davis, uses her air fryer to make vegetarian foods. She heated handpies and tofu in her off-campus apartment, and at her home in India, she heats momos, dehydrates mangoes and cooks whole, shelled peanuts.
“Getting an air fryer wasn’t about making fried things, but how to get the best out of the food we made yesterday,” said Ms. Ramesh, who bought her first air fryer used, for $30, while living with roommates at school. The device also cut her electric bill in half because she didn’t have to use her oven.
The appliance has been an especially useful tool for Shelly Cobb of Arab, Ala., who has experienced pain since having knee replacement surgery, and struggles to move around her kitchen. It’s much easier for her to reach her air fryer on the counter than to bend over to use her oven, an appliance she has almost retired. She uses the air fryer to bake light, airy biscuits for breakfast. Leftover pizza reheated in the fryer comes out better than it did in the oven, she said.
The air fryer, she said, is “everything and better than I hoped it would be,” adding that with her medical issues, “it’s made it bearable to cook.”
Social-media influencers have ratcheted up the creativity of recipes made in the air fryer by showing off the device to younger audiences. On TikTok, a video app most popular for users 16 to 24 years old, content creators have banked millions of views by pushing the limits of what can be made in the air fryer — everything from those corn cobs to doughnuts and cookies. Currently, there are 2.6 billion views under #airfryer and another nearly 700 million under #airfryerrecipes.
Jori Maglaya, a chef and D.J. in Los Angeles who goes by the name Jori Mezuda, has attracted thousands of comments on TikTok videos in which she makes air-fried foods like cheese sticks dusted in spicy Cheetos. “People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, you make me want to buy an air fryer,’ ” she said.
Food companies have piggybacked on the appliance’s popularity. Since 2019, many Ore-Ida products have come with air-frying instructions. Tyson items like chicken nuggets and strips have similar directions, and the company is selling premade air-fried chicken. Louisiana Fish Fry makes coating mixes specifically for the air fryer.
How long the love affair will last is unclear. Electric knives and fondue pots have had their day on the kitchen counter, said Dr. Cowan, the University of Pennsylvania professor. But in most homes, they were eventually exiled to the back of a cabinet or discarded.